Rutgers Webcam Case: Defense Begins in Tyler Clementi Death

PHOTO: Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student on trial waits during a break, March 8, 2012 in New Brunswick, NJ.
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Burden of Proof: Analysis by Chris Cuomo and Ian Shearn

Lawyers for Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi, charged in the webcam cyber-bullying case of Tyler Clementi, began their defense Friday, revealing their two-fold strategy: interview a chorus of witnesses who say the defendant does not have a homophobic bone in his body; and then subtly attack the credibility, judgment and integrity of the police investigation.

Ravi is charged with multiple counts of invasion of privacy, witness and evidence tampering and, most critically, bias intimidation, a hate crime. He is accused of briefly spying on Clementi kissing another man in a Rutgers dorm room. A few days later, in September 2010, Clementi committed suicide.

Friday's session ended before defense counsel Steven Altman could finish his aggressive line of questioning Frank DiNinno, the lead investigator in the Ravi case for the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office. But it was clear where Altman was going.

Right to Lokesh Ojha, a key witess for the state.

Ojha has testified that he helped Ravi set up his webcam on Sept. 21 for a second viewing of the two gay lovers, which never happened, and initially lied to police about his involvement.

Altman's spent much of the afternoon grilling DiNinno on this matter, eliciting from the detective that his office took a second statement from Ojha after learning of his complicity.

"Did you swear him in to the tell the truth?" Altman asked about Ojha's first, incomplete statement.

"Yes," DiNinno replied.

"What is the consequence of being sworn in and lying?" Altman asked.

"The prosecutor would make the decision whether to prosecute someone," DiNinno said. "False swearing is a criminal offense."

But the finale of the intense exchange will wait until Monday morning. The proceedings ended before Altman could bring his line of questioning to a conclusion.

ABCNews.com posted a piece earlier this week raising the question posed by legal experts following the trial: Why wasn't Ojha charged as well?

"Altman is going hard after the lead detective," said John Fahy, a former New Jersey prosecutor. "He wanted to show that the prosecutor's office has wide discretion on whom to charge and whom not to charge, and thus bring doubt into the jury's mind as to why Ravi was charged."

In another line of questioning, Altman chipped away at the integrity of the state's central contention -- that Ravi was motivated by homophobia. DiNinno said he had interviewed 30 people with knowledge of the webcam incident, and asked all of them if they ever saw Ravi display an anti-gay attitude, in words or deeds. None of them said they had.

Earlier in the day, seven of Ravi's family friends testified that they had never heard the former Rutgers student say anything negative or derogatory about gay people or homosexuality.

"Expect Altman to reinforce this message in the final days of the trial," said Fahy. "If Ravi was homophobic, it is likely that he would have made comments to his friends and those he was comfortable with. In addition, Altman was able get several prosecution's witnesses to state that Ravi never made anti-gay statements."

Altman also asked detailed questions about whether witnesses were pre-interviewed and which witnesses gave multiple statements to police. By so thoroughly questioning how the case was investigated and prosecuted, the defense seeks to create doubts in the minds of jurors about the integrity of the charges.

The state is trying to prove that Ravi targeted his roommate, Tyler Clementi, specifically because he was gay. If convicted on the top hate crime charges, Ravi faces up to 10 years in prison. The defense attorneys maintain that while Ravi acted childishly, he is not bigoted or homophobic.

The state rested Thursday morning after 10 days of testimony that relied on students, law enforcement officials and technical experts. It also depended heavily on evidence in the form of Twitter posts, internet chats, and text messages.

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